Prepping for the gig

written by Metro Music Makers instructor J.T. Lee

When we’re young musicians, often we have the luxury of time, especially when it comes to performance prep. We spend months prepping for minutes on stage. I remember being in high school band—we started working Christmas music in October. The crazy thing was that we played the same songs every year! Then in January, we worked on the March performance, and immediately after that we worked on the May show. It was an average of 2-4 months of prep time per show. 

Fast forward to my time as a lesson instructor. Students often ask to start Christmas music as early as September, and to look at music for May recitals in February. Being prepared is great, and longer prep time is definitely needed for some pieces, but in all reality, full-time musicians don’t always get time to learn tunes. I’ve actually shown up to a gig and had to learn the tunes on the spot. So how can we start to build some realistic expectations on how to prep our students and ourselves for gigs? 

1. Don’t just practice; build a practice schedule.

Let’s be honest, we practice differently when we know there’s a show. The show becomes the deadline, and we know that failing to meet it means failing ourselves. So why not create deadlines for each practice session? I have specific practice times built into my schedule. I also have alternate times in case those don’t work out. Each day, I have a practice goal I have to meet before I quit. Personally, I am a goal-oriented person, which means I don’t have aimless drive. I need to be aimed at something to be motivated, so I have to have the discipline to create my own aims. 

 If you’re teaching a student, set a weekly goal and then teach them to break it up into daily ones. Scale the goals according to ability, but each semester, push them to learn a little more. If they only learn one tune the first semester, push them to two during the second. Students who have goals are often more likely to practice, just like us pros who have a full calendar of gigs. We just need to guide them to find the time to add in practice times. Help them build a schedule that works, and then teach them to find the daily wins in practicing. 

2. Learn the things that require no skills.

What really makes a good musician? Is it the ability to play tough things fast? Sure that helps, but anyone who books bands will tell you that there are plenty of people that can play the parts. What often wins someone the second call is not the natural skill. It’s the ability of the musician to be a professional. It’s the easy that’s often the hardest. As you prep, remember: 

  • Show up early (15 minutes is a good aim).
  • Show up dressed for the gig.
  • Be prepared. Know the tunes better than the band leader.
  • Be flexible. Be cool. Nobody likes a jerk. 
  • Have all your gear and some extra stuff to help others in the band, just in case.

3. Say yes to the tough shows.

We all play shows we’re not comfortable doing, but pushing ourselves out of that comfort zone is how we learn. We know there are non-glamorous shows, but those often yield some of the most educational value. We have to set ourselves up in ways that allow us to learn what live performance is like outside of school concerts and bi-yearly recitals. Metro Music Makers offers 2-3 yearly shows that are more like real gigs for a musician. They allow us to show kids what the uncomfortable outdoor gig feels like. We had two of them get rained on last year and had to show the kids how to adjust. They learned some valuable lessons from those. 

J.T. with two of his students during a Metro Music Makers performance.

For pros, we may not like a certain style or venue, but by taking those shows, it gives us a chance to continue to stretch and grow. A friend of mine who was an opera singer recently booked a small gig with a rock band. She had to change her entire style to fit the gig, but now she knows what it takes to pull off those shows. Push yourself in the tough gigs. There’s always something to learn. 

4. Research the audience and tailor the show.

We have to know the people we’re playing to. Selecting the right songs, look and attire are everything in gig performance. I’m not wearing jeans to play a corporate Christmas party, just like I’m not wearing my tux to play at a bar. Tailor the show to the audience. I recently did some volunteer work at an assisted living home. People asked me if I was playing songs from the 30s and 40s. They were perplexed when I asked them, “Why would I do that?” The truth is most of these people were in their teens in the 50s and 60s. It only took doing some simple math to figure that out. 

Also take atmosphere into account. Are you the show, or are you background music? Are you in a Latin club, or a piano bar? Choose your tunes to help keep the crowd as engaged or disengaged as they are supposed to be. It’ll make a huge difference in the number of callbacks you get. 

5. Learn from failures.

We all botch tunes. Take notes, and do some personal inventory after any gig. Then, on the next one, implement what you learned from the last one. I’ve made many adjustments based on experiences from individual gigs. When you’re prepping for your next show, take some time to reflect on the last few, and look to see if there’s any thing you should or shouldn’t do at this one. This could include things like adding talking points between songs to eat up time, or leaving that extra drum at home because you didn’t play it anyway. You’ll be more ready for this gig than you were for the last, because you’ll already know what could go wrong! Always learn from the failures and the successes and you will grow as a musician.

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